Landon Newton, “Ordered Liberty.” Photo by Carolyn Wachnicki, courtesy of Space

Two Portland institutions are commemorating anniversaries this year: Space and the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design.

“Assembly” at Space reaffirms the collaborative, experimental approach to art that has characterized the organization for 20 years. “Conjuring: 25 Years at the ICA” is historical (no actual art on display) consisting of old catalogs, announcements and other materials, but concurrent show “A Fresh Greeting Is Heard” is a richly rewarding visual experience.

All run through Sept. 18.

Just inside Space is an array of potted plants. This is not a verdant welcome to the gallery. In fact, it’s a mini garden of abortifacients – herbs used since classical antiquity (that is, 1,000 years before Christ) to end pregnancies. The walls around are plastered with 102 pages of the recent Supreme Court decision that rescinded Roe v. Wade.

It’s the work of Landon L. Newton, who has explored this territory long before the latest legal ruling. Frankly, there could hardly be a more cogent argument for ensuring safe access to abortion than this piece, called “Ordered Liberty.” Clearly, women have sought to terminate pregnancies, whatever their reasons, for millennia. It never became an issue in this country until the 19th century, when Connecticut outlawed the procedure after quickening (the moment movement is detected in the uterus) in 1821.

Newton pointed question: If women have been willing for over 3,000 years to suffer herbal extremes – the high doses of abortifacients required commonly caused liver and kidney damage, even death – how can the Supreme Court condemn women again to these potential dangers? Who is playing God here?

Advertisement

Emily Carris-Duncan tackles something similar with quilted pieces, the fabric of which is colored with dyes made from abortifacients such as rue, tansy and indigo. But she also uses a solution derived from the iron of 19th-century slave shackles, and the quilted works are made collaboratively at High Pastures, a “nonprofit interdisciplinary studio and retreat space dedicated to supporting the work of marginalized creative practitioners in Vermont,” according to a wall plaque.

These aspects of the work expand her commentary into a wider cultural sphere, connecting the making of the work to slavery, the traditions of Black quilting circles, so-called “women’s work” and issues of women’s invisibility in the art world.

Quilt forms also appear in E. Saffronia Downing’s offerings. She forages clays from sedimentary deposits in areas where she lives and/or works and uses them to create glazed earthenware sculptures (here in the form of star patterns from traditional quilting). The components palpably convey the physical presence of land as thick slabs of clay soil that is crumbling and cracking. Yet glazed areas connect the maker more closely to that land, creating a rich dialogue about the interrelations of natural and built environments, the earth and the people who inhabit it. The star quilt form also ties the work to some of the same themes Carris-Duncan addresses.

Erin Woodbery, “Illuminators for the Geologic Afterlife.” Photo by Carolyn Wachnicki, courtesy of Space

The environment is at the center of Erin Woodbrey’s quirky installation, “Illuminators for the Geologic Afterlife.” The jerry-rigged effect is intentional. It’s composed of what appears to be human detritus: discarded wood scraps, a detergent bottle, a clothes-drying rack, a candle, a blue florist’s vase and so on. But some elements – the detergent bottle, shorts, flip-flops – are actually cast from clay. Other elements are natural detritus (a pile of eggshells, sun-bleached whelks, a wooden stump).

This elicits contemplation about what is brought into the world and then discarded, as well as where it all goes. Inherent in this discussion is also the passage of time, which renders a thing useful or not, relevant (read: timely) or obsolete. Lighting in the form of old floor and desk lamps, aluminum clamp lights and other sources can be variously glowing consistently or oscillating between brightness and dimness, adding a visceral sense of the fragility between our concept of permanence and impermanence.

This inevitably brings up the question of extraterrestrial life of course, which is the subject of research-based artist and writer olivier [sic], who in the back gallery invites us to write down our own experiences of UFOs and to bring in books about them to contribute to an eventual library of extraterrestrial literature. The underlying message, however, is one of othering: What is really alien?

Advertisement

MCXT installation at Space. Photo by Carolyn Wachnicki, courtesy of Space

The art of MCXT – a creative partnership between Monica Canilao and Xara Thustra – is all about celebrating and empowering marginalized communities, from BIPOC and LGBTQ to “differently-abled bodies” and “economic community.” It manifests as an explosive display of color, graphics and apparel. Its most ebullient piece is the “In Your Dreams Coat,” a garment teaming with appliqued satiny fabrics, flowers, crochet, costume jewelry, beads, sequined pop-culture images, fringe. It is a joyous microcosm of the inclusive orientation of Space.

WILD WORLD

“A Fresh Greeting” at ICA features four artists who deal with nature in their work – its untamed (and untamable) power, its perpetual state of transformation, its almost scary lushness. Allison Schulnik’s video “Moth” is strange, beautiful and uplifting all at once. Ostensibly, Schulnik has strung together 1,540 gouache-on-paper works to track the constant metamorphosis of plants and a strange moth, all set to the mournful music of Erik Satie.

It is really about much more than nature, of course. More expansively, it meditates on the nature of reality and the constant spontaneous creation of everything out of nothing. During its three minutes, not one element remains static. The works bleed into each other in a jittery, vibrational visual style that feels teeming, alive and prolific – forms arise and change second to second, mirroring the dynamism of the universe. Schulnik’s sensibility is kindred with the Romantic movement’s view of the sublime, where nature and creation are alternately ecstatic and ravishing, terrible and even demonic.

“A Fresh Greeting is Heard,” installation view with works by Leon Benn and Lauren Mabry Photo by Joel Tsui, courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design

The paintings of Leon Benn are fecund, primeval paeans to the unstoppable determination of the plant world to repeatedly prove its dominance over humankind. Flora here is forever pushing up through the urban landscape. Like nature’s coordinated assault on human order – weeds, strangling vines, the pollen that proliferates more growth – Benn’s painting process is multilayered. He dyes sections of his linen surfaces and uses acrylic washes, oil paint and oil pastel to mimic this profusion.

In two works in the back gallery, mushrooms, dandelions and leaves seem to grow out from the surface toward the viewer. This effect is heightened by Benn’s background, a depth of field that simulates a blurry photograph – of buildings in one, a moth or butterfly darting by in the other.

Advertisement

The sense of plants as predatory – creeping, engulfing, suffocating – permeates the paintings of Hannah Secord Wade. Brush and trees seem to close in around these scenes to conceal some latent danger. In “Feast of the Unknowing,” an alfresco repast has been cut short. A chair has toppled over, a glass has tipped its green liquid contents onto the table and drips to the ground, a participant’s slippers lie on the grass in the foreground. “What happened here?” we ask. The bushes encircling the event have witnessed something but remain eerily mute.

Lastly, I’m not quite sure how the ceramic work of Lauren Mabry relates to any of these themes, except, perhaps, in the visual representation of profusion, of something gone completely wild. But they are bizarrely fascinating. Mabry creates ceramic forms, leaving cavities in them that she fills with glazes. In the kiln, these glazes become molten and ooze from the cavities like taffy in long, drippy ribbons that puddle on and around the lower portions of the forms.

She is essentially creating sculpture with glazes, a feat all on its own, especially because in these multicolored drips, each hue retains its integrity rather than bleeding into adjacent colors. Her technical skill is confounding and enthralling. She is also incorporating other processes like monoprint transfer. Their innovations go far beyond our concept of ceramics as a somehow “lesser” craft material to “fine” art.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.